Taxes are never, ever fun — especially if you’re just getting started on them with only days left before the filing deadline. You don’t need to dread April 18th, though — that’s right, the 2017 filing deadline is April 18th, not the traditional date of the 15th. Tax software has come along way, and if you choose the right option, you’ll be able to knock your taxes out quickly and confidently. 2017’s list of the best tax software companies features three faithful standouts: TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxAct.
We have a clear favorite pick this year (the fourth year in a row, in fact). It’s TurboTax, and it’s our top pick for several reasons. It’s the easiest to use; it has the most comprehensive set of features; and best of all, it’s absolutely free for millions of Americans filing a 1040EZ or 1040A (and state returns) thanks to a resurgence of the company’s Absolute Zero program.
That’s available to anyone who has an income of less than $100,000; doesn’t have sizable medical bills to deduct; and doesn’t claim any rental, investment, or business income. Pretty great, right?
The Simple Dollar’s Picks for the Best Tax Software for 2017
The best tax software doesn’t just get your taxes filed — it educates users, leaving them confident about their return rather than worried about an audit. As a result, we dug deep into user experience this year. We put each software package through the wringer, evaluating facilitation, disbursement, accuracy tools, and deduction discovery. We also considered how much we enjoyed using it (yes, you can enjoy using tax software). We also looked for a few key features: an accuracy guarantee, audit-risk identification tools, multiple refund-disbursement options, strong customer support, and the ability to import all of your forms and data. And when we learned that the number of TurboTax users (6 million) filing from smartphones and tablets is up 15 percent from the previous year, we favored software with great mobile apps, too.
TurboTax, H&R Block, or TaxAct: What is the Best Tax Software?Start TurboTax Federal Free Edition Here
Intuit’s TurboTax remains the industry’s most streamlined and intuitive tax software package for the 2016 fiscal year. Whether you’re self-employed, freelancing on the side, or filing a 1040EZ, TurboTax has all the tools you need to minimize headaches and capitalize on your return. Just remember: Its pricing schedule is a bit more confusing and expensive than competitors, so you might wind up paying more than you imagined depending on the complexity of your tax situation.
One of TurboTax’s most compelling features is SmartLook™, which connects users with a CPA or enrolled agent via one-way video. Users can share their screen and receive expert help, for free, with an unlimited amount of requests. What’s more, Intuit improved the tool for 2016 by adding the ability to schedule appointments, which tightens its competition with H&R Block, which boasts 12,000 in-person locations nationwide. SmartLook™ isn’t available for Federal Free Edition users, but outside of sitting in a room with a tax professional, it’s one of the best customer support tools in the industry, bar none.
TurboTax also upped its game this year with the launch of a brand-new tool for the self-employed called Expense Finder. Once connected to a user’s bank account, Expense Finder helps to pinpoint every single transaction from the past year that might qualify as an expense. It can be difficult to keep track of every nickel and dime spent on things like travel and food, so this is a welcome addition to the TurboTax family. Plus, users get a free, one-year subscription to Intuit QuickBooks.Start With H&R Block Here
H&R Block is one of the most trusted names in finance thanks to its excellent customer service. With over 12,000 locations in the United States, you’re likely not far from speaking face-to-face with a professional who can help you sift through the financial maze. And regardless of which plan (edition) you choose, you also get free, in-person audit support.
The company’s software isn’t quite as simple or feature-rich as TurboTax, but it can be more affordable for small-business owners and those with multiple investments and properties. TurboTax’s “Premium” edition runs about $140 (state and federal), while H&R Block’s “Premium” edition costs around $90. Both cover the same forms from schedules C, D, E, and F (those that are related to deductions, self-employment, and investment income), but H&R Block customers get the benefit of in-person support while also saving $50.Start With TaxAct Here
TaxAct is the most affordable option out there. Consider this: The company’s top-of-the-line edition, called Premium, runs $55 and includes forms from schedules C, D, E, and F — that means freelancers, homeowners, investors, and the self-employed can take advantage of the same deductions available on TurboTax’s “Self-Employed” ($140) and “Premium” ($92) editions for almost half the price. However, TaxAct has limited e-filing capabilities because it doesn’t support forms 1041 and 1065 in every state. So if you plan to file online, make sure to check whether TaxAct supports the forms you need.
The flipside to its affordability is that TaxAct doesn’t offer as robust customer support as the likes of TurboTax’s SmartLook™ CPA video chat or H&R Block’s 12,000 office sites. But if you don’t mind forgoing the bells and whistles, TaxAct is one of the best, and most affordable, software options available.
Still sounding a little too spendy? Check out our Best Free Tax Software Guide to see if there is a good option that fits your needs.
What should the best tax software have?
- Accuracy guarantee: If you pay an IRS or state penalty or interest because of a calculation error, the company pays you for the penalty and interest.
- Audit-risk identification: Tools that help you identify red flags that trigger audits, like failing to report all your income, or breaking rules on foreign accounts.
- Refund disbursement options: Users can choose how a refund is paid, including via check, direct deposit, prepaid debit card, savings bonds, etc.
- Strong customer support system: A comprehensive knowledge base, live chat, email support, etc.
- Data import: The ability to import your W-2 by taking a picture, or at the very least, importing information from your previous tax return.
Which deductions should the best tax software offer?
Aside from the standard deductions — $9,300 for head of household filers, $6,300 for singles and married persons filing separate returns, and $12,600 for married couples filing jointly — we only considered software that also offered:
- Charity Donations
- Itemized Deductions
- Business Owner Deductions
- Depreciation Summary
- Vehicle Deduction Methods
- Rental Property Deductions
How to Choose the Best Tax Preparation Software for You
The needs for a nine-to-five employee and a CEO of a startup company are worlds apart. Maybe you’re like me and work multiple freelance jobs. Your tax software is completely dependent on your specific tax needs.
First-Timers: TurboTax Free Edition
If you’re new to paying taxes, I highly recommend starting with the free version of our top income tax software choice, TurboTax. It’s reliable and intuitive, and should make your first time filing taxes a bit less painful. If you’re lucky, your taxes will be simple enough that you don’t have to upgrade beyond the Free Edition.
Best Small Business Tax Software: H&R Block
It’s always nice to have someone watching your back, especially if you’re in charge of a small business. With H&R Block, you can take your taxes to any local office and have someone look over it for free. The personal touch of H&R Block’s customer service makes it a no-brainer for any business owners out there. It’s the best tax software for small business, hands down.
Best Professional Tax Software for Experienced Tax Filers: TurboTax
Overall, TurboTax still remains the best tax software for the serious tax filer. The intuitive software is built to handle even the most complicated tax needs with ease. TurboTax rapidly determines everything from refunds and deductibles to accurate audit risks.
Income Tax Calculator
We’ve built an income tax calculator to help you determine your federal and state income tax; total income tax; and expected take-home earnings based on your filing type, locations, and annual earnings. This should help you prepare and plan your taxes as well as manage your finances for the year, especially if you owe more money than you anticipated because you didn’t withhold enough.
A Guide to the Different Versions of Tax Software
Thankfully, finding the right version of your software isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Since it behooves these tax-filing companies to move your money as effortlessly as possible, they’ve allowed for smooth upgrading, if needed for your current tax situation. If you’re unsure of where your exact needs lie, I would recommend starting with each company’s free tax software option and working your way up, or staying there if it covers you. Your income flow and your situation will dictate which tier you’ll be in, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of the four main levels offered by the best tax software companies:
Federal Free Edition — The best deal, this provides the resources to prepare and e-file both federal and state taxes and is generally utilized by those with the most basic tax needs. Federal filing is free, but state filing typically incurs a fee.
Basic Edition — Includes all the features found in the Federal Free Edition with the addition of access to basic deduction-identification tools and improved support.
Deluxe Edition — Generally offers more to identify deductions through industry- or occupation-specific searches. May also include more robust tools for life events, donations, and audit risk.
Premium Edition — Generally grants access to the full functionality of the software with deduction assistance that expands to include rental properties and other business-specific tax deductions, along with advanced calculators and additional investment resources.
Tax Software Comparison: TurboTax vs. H&R Block vs. TaxAct
While we have found TurboTax to be the best tax software option overall, all of the main competitors have something unique to bring to the table. To remove any remaining bias, let’s compare some of the measurable qualities of each tax software option.
The table below compares the main components of each contender, not a breakdown of every feature these companies have to offer. You can find our deeper dive into the ins and outs of our main competitors below.
Best Tax Software: Feature Comparison
Below are ALL of the things you need to consider when choosing the best tax software. After comparing, simply click get started to be one step closer to finishing your taxes!
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Online Tax Software Reviews: A Deeper Look at the Top 3
TurboTax: The Best Tax Preparation Software
TurboTax is undeniably the most recognizable name in tax prep software, and it has the chops to back it up. Its audit and deduction tools are the best in the business, and its list of features is ever growing with the addition of SmartLook™ video support and Expense Finder for the self-employed. And like H&R Block, TurboTax allows users to upload their W-2 by taking a picture with a mobile device. (If your payroll provider is one of TurboTax’s many partners, you can even import your W-2 online.) Here are a few more highlights:
- A comprehensive Federal Free Edition that includes 1040EZ, 1040A, and 1040 forms as well as live chat
- Incredibly easy-to-use software
- The best mobile app in the business
- Expense Finder, which helps the self-employed identify every possible deduction
- Incredibly thorough AnswerXchange knowledge base
- Strong customer support, including SmartLook™ expert video chat
- Heads-up audit detection while you file your taxes
- A wide array of disbursement options
- Trusty phone support hotline
While TurboTax is the overall best tax software in the field, it’s not without its weaknesses. As many disgruntled users will point out, the price has steadily climbed over the past few years and stands as one of the most expensive options on the market. (For example, TurboTax charges $80 to file federal taxes online, compared to competitor H&R Block’s $60.) But, like we mentioned before, if you have a simple tax situation, you can file absolutely free through TurboTax’s Absolute Zero program.
It’s also important to note the company has a steep processing fee of $34.99 if you pay your TurboTax fee with your federal refund.
H&R Block: The Best Customer Support at an Affordable Price
With over 12,000 locations spanning the US, H&R Block is able to provide a personal touch that TurboTax and TaxAct can’t match. And the best part is that no matter which plan you choose — the free online edition, or the paid desktop edition — everyone gets access to a real-life tax professional. All you have to do is visit the office with the giant green block. Here are a few more highlights:
- Standout tools to help with more complex tax needs, including deductions
- Helpful page-by-page overviews and step-by-step workflow guidance
- Premium edition is $30-$50 cheaper than TurboTax’s.
- Peppered with links throughout each page to answer any questions you might have, such as “What qualifies?”
- A bookmarking system lets you tag anything you want to refer to later.
- File federal taxes for free with the At Home Free Edition, which provides many tax forms other competitors don’t, plus free audit support and representation.
H&R Block Downsides
Right now, you may be asking, “With such incredible customer service, why isn’t H&R Block the best tax software?” Frankly, its bland website and slightly confusing interface can’t compete with the simplicity of TurboTax. But if you’d feel more confident having a copilot on your tax journey, H&R’s marginally less attractive software is hardly a good reason to skip it.
TaxAct: The Best Cheap Tax Software
TaxAct is undeniably one of the most affordable tax software options on the market for the standard taxpayer — its most expensive plan is less than half the price of TurboTax, and it supports the exact same forms. A big reason for these savings is found in its lack of features for the self-employed, investors, or property owners. To be clear, you can still use TaxAct if you fit in those categories, but it won’t be as easy as using TurboTax or H&R Block. The bottom line is this: If you’re a straightforward W-2 employee with a simple return, TaxAct has all you need to effectively file your taxes and save some cash. Here are a few more highlights:
- Offers top value without sacrificing quality (only extras)
- Provides a pre-built spreadsheet where you enter information like reporting category, sales proceeds, gains/losses, and other relevant stock information
- Limited state e-filing
- A useful “Refund Snapshot” dashboard
- Mini-alerts identify errors and robust learning resources make sure you get all the help you need.
- With the Free Edition, you can file federal tax forms for simple and complex tax returns for different statuses and life situations.
TaxAct’s educational resources have improved since last year, but it still doesn’t match TurboTax’s offerings. It also has a few lightweight features, like a deductions calculator and “Life Changes” event wizard (which alerts customers to important information related to life events and how they impact taxes), but they aren’t as fleshed out as comparable tools from the other companies. Finally, TaxAct doesn’t allow you to import your W-2 by taking a photo like TurboTax and H&R Block. Once you put it in manually, though, you can important it from previous tax returns in the future.
Other Tax Software to Consider
- You can choose to be guided or not, which is great if you’re confident in your tax abilities and want to bypass all the quizzes.
- Prior-year tax form access makes it easy to prepare your forms and alter them to save time.
- The life events guide makes sure you correctly input information about births, a new home, etc.
Why TaxSlayer Didn’t Make the Cut
- Deduction tools aren’t as strong as the top three — items like charity donations, rental properties, and industry-specific deductions aren’t identified.
- No live chat or user forum to get help instantly — however your questions do jump to the front of the queue for faster response time via the premium service.
- Great Affordable Care Act (ACA) forms and resources
- A clean and modern interface makes this software easy to navigate.
- Owned by Liberty Tax, which has office locations available for in-person help.
- You can import prior-year forms and pre-populate information to save time.
Why eSmartTax Didn’t Make the Cut
- It’s missing some of the more common features like a life events adviser and tax calculator.
- Deduction discovery resources are very limited, which won’t suffice for more complicated tax situations.
- Sale-of-home feature is only available at its Premium level. The sale of a home is a fairly common transaction that would be a no-brainer at a Deluxe tier level.
Whether you’re filing for your family, your business, or yourself, the biggest piece of advice is to be proactive. While we all lead busy lives, it’s always best to get a jump on the upcoming tax season and not let it sneak up on you.
Admittedly, there will never be a replacement for hiring a professional to take care of your taxes. But for anyone looking to save some money and take matters into their own hands, we’ve found TurboTax to be the best tax software on the market. Its ease of use and intuitive design paired with the gravitas carried by its name make it the premier option on the market. H&R Block and TaxAct aren’t hanging too far behind, offering unsurpassed customer service and affordability, respectively. But for the majority of taxpayers, your best bet is the slick industry hallmark: TurboTax.
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